- Meditating on No-Self
- A Dhamma Talk Edited for Bodhi Leaves
- Sister Khema
- Buddhist Publication Society
Bodhi Leaves BL 95
- Copyright © 1984 Buddhist Publication Society
Sister Khema was born in Germany, educated in Scotland and China, and later became a
United States citizen. She now lives at Wat Buddha Dhamma Forest Monastery near Sydney
Australia, which was established in 1978 on land purchased and donated by her. In 1979 she
ordained as a Nun in Sri Lanka, and in 1982 she established the International Buddhist
Women's Centre near Colombo. She spends most of her time teaching meditation course in
different parts of the world. Rains Retreat is spent in Sri Lanka.
In Buddhism we use the words "self" and "no-self," and so it is
important to understand just what this "no-self," anatta, is all about,
even if it is first just an idea, because the essence of the Buddha's teaching hinges on
this concept. And in this teaching Buddhism is unique. No one, no other spiritual teacher,
has formulated no-self in just this way. And because it has been formulated by him in this
way, there is also the possibility of speaking about it. Much has been written about
no-self, but in order to know it, one has to experience it. And that is what the teaching
aims at, the experience of no-self.
Yet in order to experience no-self, one has first to fully know self. Actually know it.
But unless we do know what this self is, this self called "me," it is impossible
to know what is meant by "there is no self there." In order to give something
away, we have to first fully gave it in hand.
We are constantly trying to reaffirm self. Which already shows that this
"self" is a very fragile and rather wispy sort of affair, because if it weren't
why would we constantly have to reaffirm it? Why are we constantly afraid of the
"self" being threatened of its being insecure, of its not getting what it needs
for survival? If it were such a solid entity as we believe it to be, we would not feel
threatened so often.
We affirm "self" again and again through identification. We identify with a
certain name, an age, a sex, an ability, an occupation. "I am a lawyer, I am a
doctor. I am an accountant, I am a student." And we identify with the people we are
attached to. "I am a husband, I am a wife, I am a mother, I am a daughter, I am a
son." Now, in the manner of speech, we have to use "self" in that way --
but it isn't only in speech. We really think that that "self" is who we are. We
really believe it. There is no doubt in our mind that that "self" is who we are.
When any of these factors is threatened, if being a wife is threatened, if being a mother
is threatened, if being a lawyer is threatened, if being a teacher is threatened -- or if
we lose the people who enable us to retain that "self" -- what a tragedy!
The self-identification becomes insecure, and "me" finds it hard to say
"look at me," "this is me." Praise and blame are included. Praise
reaffirms "me." Blame threatens "me." So we like the praise and we
dislike the blame. The ego is threatened. Fame and infamy -- same thing. Loss and gain. If
we gain, the ego gets bigger; if we lose, it gets a bit smaller. So we are constantly in a
quandary, and in constant fear. The ego might lose a little bit of its grandeur. It might
be made a bit smaller by someone. And it happens to all of us. Somebody is undoubtedly
going to blame us for something eventually. Even the Buddha was blamed.
Now the blame that is levied at us is not the problem. The problem is our reaction. The
problem is that we feel smaller. The ego has a hard time reasserting itself. So what we
usually do is we blame back, making the other's ego a bit smaller too.
Identification with whatever it is that we do and whatever it is that we have, be it
possessions or people, is, so we believe, needed for our survival. "Self"
survival. If we don't identify with this or that, we feel as if we are in limbo. This is
the reason why it is difficult to stop thinking in meditation. Because without thinking
there would be no identification. If I don't think, what do I identify with? It is
difficult to come to a stage in meditation in which there is actually nothing to identify
with any more.
Happiness, too, may be an identification. "I am happy." "I am
unhappy." Because we are so keen on survival, we have got to keep on identifying.
When this identification becomes a matter of the life or death of the ego, which it
usually is, then the fear of loss becomes so great that we can be in a constant state of
fear. Constantly afraid to lose either the possessions that make us what we are, or the
people that make us what we are. If we have no children, or if they all die, we are no
longer a mother. So fear is paramount. The same goes for all other identifications. Not a
very peaceful state of living and what is it due to? Only one thing: ego, the craving to
This identification results, of course, in craving for possessing. And this possessing
results in attachment. What we have, what we identify with, we are attached to. That
attachment, that clinging, makes it extremely difficult to have a free and open viewpoint.
This kind of clinging, whatever it may be that we cling to -- it may not be clinging to
motor cars and houses, it may not even be clinging to people -- but we certainly cling to
views and opinions. We cling to our world view. We cling to the view of how we are going
to be happy. Maybe we cling to a view of who created this universe. Whatever it is we
cling to, even how the government should run the country, all of that makes it extremely
difficult to see things as they really are. To be open-minded. And it is only an open mind
which can take in new ideas and understanding.
Lord Buddha compared listeners to four different kinds of clay vessels. The first clay
vessel is one that has holes at the bottom. If you pour water into it, it runs right out.
In other words, whatever you teach that person is useless. The second clay vessel he
compared to one that had cracks in it. If you pour water into it, the water seeps out.
These people cannot remember. Cannot put two and two together. Cracks in the
understanding. The third listener he compared to a vessel that was completely full. Water
cannot be poured in for it's full to the brim. Such a person, so full of views he can't
learn anything new! But hopefully, we are the fourth kind. The empty vessels without any
holes or cracks. Completely empty.
I dare say we are not. But may be empty enough to take in enough. To be empty like
that, of views and opinions, means a lack of clinging. Even a lack of clinging to what we
think is reality. Whatever we think reality is, it surely is not, because if it were, we
would never be unhappy for a single moment. We would never feel a lack of anything. We
would never feel a lack of companionship, of ownership. We would never feel frustrated,
bored. If we ever do, whatever we think is real, is not. What is truly reality is
completely fulfilling. If we aren't completely fulfilled, we aren't seeing complete
reality. So, any view that we may have is either wrong or it is partial.
Because it is wrong or partial, and bounded by the ego, we must look at it with
suspicion. Anything we cling to keeps us bound to it. If I cling to a table-leg, I can't
possibly get out the door. There is no way I can move. I am stuck. Not until I let go will
I have the opportunity to get out. Any identification, any possession that is clung to, is
what stops us from reaching transcendental reality. Now we can easily see this clinging
when we cling to things and people, but we cannot easily see why the five khandhas
are called the five clung-to aggregates. That is their name, and they are, in fact, what
we cling to most. That is an entire clinging. We don't even stop to consider when we look
at our body, and when we look at our mind, or when we look at feeling, perception, mental
formations, and consciousness -- vedana, sañña, sankhara, and viññana.
We look at this mind-and-body, nama-rupa, and we don't even doubt the fact that
this is my feeling, my perception, my memory, my thoughts, and
my awareness of my consciousness. And no one starts doubting until they
start seeing. And for that seeing we need a fair bit of empty space apart from views and
Clinging is the greatest possessiveness and attachment we have. As long as we cling we
cannot see reality. We cannot see reality because clinging is in the way. Clinging colors
whatever we believe to be true. Now it is not possible to say "all right, I'll stop
clinging." We can't do that. The process of taking the "me" apart, of not
believing any more that this is one whole, is a gradual one. But if meditation has any
benefit and success, it must show that first of all there is mind and there is body. There
isn't one single thing acting in accord all the time. There is mind which is thinking and
making the body act. Now that is the first step in knowing oneself a little clearer. And
then we can note "this is a feeling" and "I am giving this feeling a
name" which means memory and perception. "This is the thought that I am having
about this feeling. The feeling has come about because the mind-consciousness has
connected with the feeling that has arisen."
Take the four parts of the khandhas that belong to the mind apart. When we do
that while it is happening -- not now when we are thinking about at-but while it is
happening, then we get a inkling that this isn't really me, that these are
phenomena that are arising, which stay a moment, and then cease. How long does
mind-consciousness stay on one object? And how long do thoughts last? And have we really
The clinging, the clung-to, are what make the ego arise. Because of clinging the notion
of "me" arises and then there is me, and me having all the problems.
Without me would there be problems? If there weren't anyone sitting inside me -- as
we think there is -- who is called I or me or John, Claire, then who is having the
problem? The khandhas do not have any problems. The khandhas are just
processes. They are phenomena, and that is all. They are just going on and on and on. But
because I am grasping at them, and trying to hold on to them, and saying: "it's me,
it's me feeling, it's me wanting,." then problems arise.
If we really want to get rid of suffering, completely and totally, then clinging has to
go. The spiritual path is never one of achievement; it is always one of letting go. The
more we let go, the more there is empty and open space for us to see reality. Because what
we let go of is no longer there, there is the possibility of just moving without clinging
to the results of the movement. As long as we cling to the results of what we do, as long
as we cling to the results of what we think, we are bound, we are hemmed in.
Now there is a third thing that we do: we are interested in becoming something or
somebody. Interested in becoming an excellent meditator. Interested in becoming a
graduate. Interested in becoming something which we are not. And becoming something stops
us from being. When we are stopped from being, we cannot pay attention to what there
really is. All this becoming business is, of course, in the future. Since whatever there
is in the future is conjecture, it is a dream world we live in. The only reality we can be
sure of is this particular moment right now; and this particular moment as you must be
able to be aware of -- has already passed and this one has passed and the next one has
also passed. See how they are all passing! That is the impermanence of it all. Each moment
passes, but we cling, trying to hold on to them. Trying to make them a reality. Trying to
make them a security. Trying to make them be something which they are not. See how they
are all passing. We cannot even say it as quickly as they are doing it.
There is nothing that is secure. Nothing to hold on to, nothing that is stable. The
whole universe is constantly falling apart and coming back together. And that includes the
mind and the body which we call "I." You may believe it or not, it makes no
difference. In order to know it, you must experience it; when you experience it, it's
perfectly clear. What one experiences is totally clear. No one can say it is not. They may
try, but their objections make no sense because you have experienced it. It's the same
thing as biting into the mango to know its taste.
To experience it, one needs meditation. An ordinary mind can only know ordinary
concepts and ideas. If one wants to understand and experience extraordinary experiences
and ideas, one has to have an extraordinary mind. An extraordinary mind comes about
through concentration. Most meditators have experienced some stage that is different then
the one they are use to. So it is not ordinary any more. But we have to fortify that far
more than just the beginning stage. To the point where the mind is truly extraordinary.
Extraordinary in the sense that it can direct itself to where it wants to go.
Extraordinary in the sense that it no longer gets perturbed by everyday events. And when
the mind can concentrate, then it experiences states which it has never known before. To
realize that your universe constantly falls apart and comes back together again is a
meditative experience. It takes practice, perseverance and patience. And when the mind is
unperturbed and still, equanimity, evenmindedness, peacefulness arise.
At that time the mind understands the idea of impermanence to such an extent that it
sees itself as totally impermanent. And when one sees one's own mind as being totally
impermanent, there is a shift in one's viewpoint. That shift I like to compare with a
kaleidoscope that children play with. A slight touch and you get a different picture. The
whole thing looks quite different with just a slight shift.
Non-self is experienced through the aspect of impermanence, through the aspect of
unsatisfactoriness, and through the aspect of emptiness. Empty of what? The word
"emptiness" is so often misunderstood because when one only thinks of it as a
concept, one says "what do you mean by empty?" Everything is there: there are
the people, and there are their insides, guts and their bones and blood and everything is
full of stuff -- and the mind is not empty either. It's got ideas, thoughts and feelings.
And even when it doesn't have those, what do you mean by emptiness? The only thing that is
empty is the emptiness of an entity.
There is no specific entity in anything. That is emptiness. That is the nothingness.
That nothingness is also experienced in meditation. It is empty, it is devoid of a
specific person, devoid of a specific thing, devoid of anything which makes it permanent,
devoid of anything which even makes it important. The whole thing is in flux. So the
emptiness is that. And the emptiness is to be seen everywhere; to be seen in oneself. And
that is what is called anatta, non-self. Empty of an entity. There is nobody there.
It is all imagination. At first that feels very insecure.
That person that I've been regarding with so much concern, that person trying to do
this or that, that person who will be my security, will be my insurance for a happy life
-- once I find that person -- that person does not really exist. What a frightening and
insecure idea that is! What a feeling of fear arises! But as a matter of fact, it's just
the reverse. If one accepts and bears that fright and goes through it, one comes to
complete and utter relief and release.
I'll give you a simile: Imagine you own a very valuable jewel which is so valuable that
you place your trust in it so that should you fall upon hard times, it will look after
you. It's so valuable that you can have it as your security. You don't trust anybody. So
you have a safe inside your house and that is where you put your jewel. Now you have been
working hard for a number of years and you think you deserve a holiday. So now, what to do
with the jewel? Obviously you cannot take it with you on your seaside holiday. So you buy
new locks for the doors to your house and you bar your windows and you alert your
neighbors. You tell them about the proposed holiday and ask them to look after you house
-- and the safe in it. And they say they will, of course. You should be quite at ease and
so you go off on your holiday.
You go to the beach, and it's wonderful. Marvelous. The palm trees are swaying in the
wind, and the spot you've chosen on the beach is nice and clean. The waves are warm and
it's all lovely. The first day you really enjoy yourself. But on the second day you begin
to wonder; the neighbors are very nice people, but they do go and visit their children.
They are not always at home, and lately there has been a rash of burglaries in the
neighborhood. And on the third day you've convinced yourself that something dreadful is
going to happen, and you go back home. You walk in and open the safe. Everything is all
right. You go over to the neighbors and they ask, "Why did you come back? We were
looking after your place. You didn't have to come back. Everything is fine."
The next year, the same thing. Again you tell the neighbors, "Now this time I am
really going to stay away for a month. I need this holiday as I've been working
hard." So they say, "Absolutely no need to worry, just take off. Go to the
beach." So once more you bar the windows, lock the doors, get everything shipshape,
and take off for the beach. Again, it's wonderful, beautiful. This time you last for five
days. On the fifth day you are convinced that something dreadful must have happened. And
you go home. You go home, and by golly, it has. The jewel is gone. You are in a state of
complete collapse. Total desperation. Depressed. So you go to the neighbors, but they have
no idea what has happened. they've been around all the time. Then you sit and consider the
matter and you realize that since the jewel is gone, you might as well go back to the
beach and enjoy yourself!
That jewel is self. Once it is gone, all the burden of looking after it, all the
fears about it, all the barring of doors and windows and heart and mind is no longer
necessary. You can just go and enjoy yourself while you're still in this body. After
proper investigation, the frightening aspect of losing this thing that seemed so precious
turns out to be the only relief and release from worry that there is.
There are three doors to liberation: the signless, the desireless, and emptiness. If we
understand impermanence, anicca, fully, it is called the signless liberation. If we
understand suffering, dukkha, fully, it is the desireless liberation. If we
understand no-self, anatta, fully, then it is the emptiness liberation. Which means
we can go through any of these three doors. And to be liberated means never to have to
experience an unhappy moment again. It also means something else: it means we are no
longer creating kamma. A person who has been completely liberated still acts, still
thinks, still speaks and still looks to all intents and purposes like anybody else, but
that person has lost the idea that I am thinking, I am speaking, I am
acting. Kamma is no longer being made because there is just the thought, just the speech,
just the action. There is the experience but no experiencer. And because no kamma is being
made any longer, there is no rebirth. That is full enlightenment.
In this tradition, three stages of enlightenment have been classified before one comes
to the fourth stage, full enlightenment. The first stage, the one we can concern ourselves
with -- at least theoretically -- is called sotapanna. Stream-enterer. It means a
person who has seen Nibbana once and has thereby entered the stream. That person cannot be
deterred from the Path any more. If the insight is strong, there may be only one more
life-time. If the insight is weak, it can be seven more life-times. Having seen Nibbana
for oneself once, one loses some of the difficulties one had before. The most drastic
hindrance that one loses is the idea that this person we call "I" is a separate
entity. The wrong view of self is lost. But that doesn't mean that a sotapanna is
constantly aware of no-self. The wrong view is lost. But the right view has to be
reinforced again and again and experienced again and again through that reinforcement.
Such a person no longer has any great interest, and certainly no belief, in rites and
rituals. They may still be performed because they are traditional or that are customary,
but such a person no longer believes they can bring about any kind of liberation (if they
ever believed that before). And then a very interesting thing is lost: skeptical doubt.
Skeptical doubt is lost because one has seen for oneself that what the Buddha taught was
actually so. Until that time skeptical doubt will have to arise again and again because
one can easily think: "Well, maybe. Maybe it's so, but how can I be sure?" One
can only be sure through one's own experience. Then, of course, there is no skeptical
doubt left because one has seen exactly that which has been described, and having seen it,
one's own heart and mind gives an understanding which makes it possible to see everything
Dhamma must have as its base the understanding that there is no special entity. There
is continuity, but there is no special entity. And that continuity is what makes it so
difficult for us to see that there really isn't anybody inside the body making things
happen. Things are happening anyway. So the first instance of having seen a glimpse of
freedom, called stream-entry, makes changes within us. It certainly does not uproot greed
and hate -- in fact, they are not even mentioned. But through the greater understanding
such a person has, the greed and the hate lessen. They are not as strong anymore, and they
do not manifest in gross ways, but do remain in subtle ways.
The next stages are the once-returner, then the non-returner, then the arahat.
Once-returner, one more life in the five-sense world. Non-returner, no human life
necessary, and arahat, fully enlightened. Sensual desire and hate only go with
non-returners, and complete conceit of self, only with arahat.
So we can be quite accepting of the fact that since we are not arahats, we still have
greed and hate. It isn't a matter of blaming oneself for having them: it's a matter of
understanding where these come from. They come from the delusion of me. I want to
protect this jewel which is me. That is how they arise. But with the continued
practice of meditation, the mind can become clearer and clearer. It finally understands.
And when it does understand, it can see transcendental reality. Even if seen for one
thought-moment, the experience is of great impact and makes a marked change in our lives.